Lebanon - Religious Sects
Several thousand Alawis were scattered throughout northern Lebanon in late 1980s. Lebanese Alawis have assumed more significance since the rise to power of the Alawi faction in Syria in 1966, and especially since the Syrians established a military presence in Lebanon in 1976.
The Alawis are also known as "Nusayris" because of their concentration in the Nusayriyah Mountains in western Syria. They appear to be descendants of people who lived in this region at the time of Alexander the Great. When Christianity flourished in the Fertile Crescent, the Alawis, isolated in their little communities, clung to their own pre-Islamic religion. After hundreds of years of Ismaili influence, however, the Alawis moved closer to Islam. Furthermore, contacts with the Byzantines and the Crusaders added Christian elements to the Alawis' new creeds and practices. For example, Alawis celebrate Christmas, Easter, and the Epiphany, and use sacramental wine in some ceremonies. For several centuries, the Alawis enjoyed autonomy within the Ottoman Empire, but, in the midnineteenth century, the Ottomans imposed direct rule. Regarding the Alawis as infidels, the Ottomans consistently persecuted them and imposed heavy taxation. During the French Mandate, the Alawis briefly gained territorial autonomy, but direct rule was reimposed in 1936.
Alawis claim they are Muslims, but conservative Sunnis do not recognize them as such. In the early 1970s, however, Imam Musa as Sadr declared the Alawi sect a branch of Shia Islam. Like Ismaili Shias, Alawis believe in a system of divine incarnation. Unlike Ismailis, Alawis regard Ali as the incarnation of God. Because many of the tenets of the faith are secret, Alawis have refused to discuss their faith with outsiders. Only an elect few learn the religion after a lengthy initiation process; youths are initiated into the secrets of the faith in stages. Alawis study the Quran and recognize the five pillars of Islam. Alawis do not set aside a particular building for worship. In the past, Sunni government officials forced them to build mosques, but these were invariably abandoned. Only the men take part in worship.
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